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Don’t blame planners for doing their job

McMinnville Planning Director Heather Richards, like all public officials, chooses to work in a free-fire zone.

Criticism comes with the job, as it should. No one empowered to make decisions on behalf of the public — regardless of past achievements or stated intentions — deserves unqualified and unquestioning support.

That said, Richards has been a target lately when it comes to planning future growth and development of the city. And much of it is undeserved.

Friends of Yamhill County, and people sharing its concerns about the environment and livability, are accusing Richards of promoting growth at the expense of those priorities. What her critics need to realize, along with everyone else, is that she’s primarily doing the job required of her under state law.

This page has taken her to task at times over various issues, as it does frequently with public officials. However, recent criticism regarding long-term planning directed at Richards’ department and the city as a whole strikes us as unjustified in light of the law.

City planners, not surprisingly, are expected to plan. By state law, city governments must plan for 20 years of population growth; refusing to cooperate is not an option.

Some people close their eyes tightly and try to wish the law away. They picture a McMinnville surrounded by a magical wall barring all but existing residents.

But many of those people enjoy the fruits of growth, including a restaurant scene most cities McMinnville’s size drool over, and an influx in creative and tech-saavy companies and workforce.

Furthermore, cities with stagnant or declining growth find themselves unable to afford the cost of basic services.

That cost typically rises about 5% to 7% annually. Without expansion, property tax growth is limited to 3%. If construction and population growth fail to keep pace, you don’t need a Magic 8 Ball to predict catastrophe.

The planning department is not making that choice for us. It is merely carrying out legal obligations.

That is not to say its work should go unchecked, without critique and input from all stakeholders in the equation. But that should come with the understanding that each side has a role to fulfill, and that local government is often bound by state laws as it operates — as frustrating as the lack of local control can be to a city’s population.

Richards has criticized Oregon’s ponderous and litigious land use system for hamstringing effective planning. But questioning the system isn’t the same as flouting it. As planning director, she’s charged with flagging obstacles and offering options.

Ultimately, the city council must decide how to navigate around Oregon’s planning system as it sets the stage for future growth.

McMinnville is in the early stages of a serious conversation about growth. Throughout the process, people must understand the difference between objective reality and wishful thinking.

 

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